If you’re talented in one way or another, chances are it’s a holdover from a previous life. At least, that’s how Asha Bhosle thinks. At the age of 83, you might say it’s natural for her to be thinking about reincarnation and the afterlife. But Bhosle, one of the longest-working professionals in Bollywood, says she realised early on that her gifts came from another existence.
“I’m the only one among all my sisters who cooks. I can cook for 60 or 70 people, no problem,” she says, talking to Gulf News tabloid! on a Thursday afternoon in Dubai, on the sidelines of a masterclass for viewers of the Sony TV show Flavours of Ramadan. The show, helmed by Gaurav Tandon, completed its third season, which was aired around the world, and marked one of the few times Bhosle was on food TV.
“When I first entered the kitchen, I thought I’d cooked before,” Bhosle continues. “When I cook, I cook very fast. I know what to put in. I can taste something and say what spices are in it. It’s something from inside. Like singing, like writing. I get so much happiness when I cook that I think I’ve learned it before. It’s the same satisfaction as if I’d recorded a song.”
As a child growing up in Kolhapur in the 1940s, Bhosle loved spending time in neighbours’ kitchens, cooking tea time snacks such as karanjis and chaklis. “I learned to cook at home, not by asking anyone. I loved working the flour mill, or grinding masalas,” she says. “This comes from within. The soul doesn’t die, it simply changes its clothes when it moves from one life to another.”
Although she’s a national treasure in India, having made her playback debut 75 years ago with the 1943 Marathi film Majha Bal and with her songs — including work with international acts such as Boy George and Michael Stipe — charting in several countries, Bhosle is less famous for her culinary skills. In 2002, 60 years into her career and at a time when other singers might start winding down, the Grammy nominee opened Asha’s, her first restaurant, at Dubai’s Wafi City mall.
“I didn’t think about opening a restaurant until my son Anand told me I should do a book,” she says, talking to me in Hindi. “I said I’ve read a lot, I can write, too, but who’s going to sit down and write? So I opened a restaurant instead.”
In doing so, she put to the test skills honed over years of cooking for Bollywood royalty, including Shashi and Randhir Kapoor and their families, the poet and lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri, and Amitabh Bachchan — and the occasional journalist (I had the pleasure of having her cook an inventive dish of French beans and scrambled eggs at her Mumbai home).
Bhosle has spoken before of how when she stopped for dinner after a concert with husband RD Burman and lyricist Anand Bakshi, they’d often talk about starting a dhaba, or streetside food stall. When the Dubai restaurant came about, she spent the better part of a year training the chefs.
“The menu is what we eat at home — food from everywhere. I learned early on that I needed to cook a variety of different things, including meat and poultry, to keep my husband and children interested in their meals,” she says. “So I picked up dishes from everywhere. I learned how to cook dal makhani from the Afghan chefs at Bukhara restaurant in New Delhi, and biryani from Majrooh Sultanpuri’s begum.” She tells of walking into small kitchens and cajoling cooks to part with recipes — one of these is Muscat ghosht, an Omani-style lamb recipe that she wrote down on her hand. The first time she tried it at home, she says proudly, her fussy children rated it “ekdum top” (absolutely top).
Since her roots are Goan and she’s lived in Mumbai all her life, I ask why her restaurants don’t specialise in food from the Konkan coast. Anand, her son and manager, blames market demand: “Although we have dishes from other parts of India, if customers go to an Indian restaurant, they expect butter chicken and dal makhani.”
His mother answers: “Everybody doesn’t like Konkani food, everybody doesn’t like coconut milk. They want food with tomatoes and onions, so we give them that.” But Bhosle insists on some things done her way. Her own garam masala, an Indian blend of spices that varies by household and whose recipe is fiercely guarded, is exported to each restaurant from her Mumbai home. “It’s my own recipe that I’ve thought up myself, considering the properties of each spice. Cloves burn, for example, while fennel and cumin have cooling properties, and cinnamon and pepper are heaty [heat producing].”
Asha Bhosle enjoys making food for her celebrity friends. Pictured here with ‘Sholay’ director Ramesh Sippy.
That dedication to authenticity has seen the business expand to 15 restaurants across the GCC and the UK in as many years. Anand says much of that success comes from the Dubai flagship, which kick-started the business — though he admits to tweaking the recipes for different markets. “A lot of brands are purchased or bought into the UAE from all over the world. But how many UAE restaurant brands have been exported to other countries?” he says. “Dubai is a great test market for the rest of the world, because you’ve got nearly 200 nationalities living here.”
Besides the UAE, the chain now operates in Kuwait and Bahrain, as well as Birmingham and Manchester in the UK. This year, new outlets will open in Jeddah, Riyadh and Al Khobar, Anand says. “There’s also interest coming from South East Asia, particularly Malaysia and Singapore. I’d also be very interested in Canada, because of the huge Indian population.”
Bhosle herself eschews long-term plans for the brand. She’d like to open in India, she says, but recognises what a tough task it is. “We can’t open in Mumbai. It’s extremely difficult,” she says when talking of the challenges of running the brand. “Unlike the government here, in our country it takes a long time to open a restaurant.” Although an India franchise was announced a few years ago, Anand says it didn’t work out. As is her wont, Bhosle responds philosophically, quoting Krishna, one of the most widely revered Hindu deities: “Every restaurant has a [life]time. Some last longer than others. Krishna bhagwan says don’t worry about what happened yesterday, and as for tomorrow, you don’t know what’s coming. I don’t even know what’s going to happen this evening. I could fall, I could die. But the present moment is truth. That’s my philosophy ...”
She’s convinced, however, that in her next life — “if I’m reborn” — the music won’t stop. “I’m going to sing again. I haven’t sung enough,” she tells me. I look at her incredulously — she holds the Guinness Record for the most studio singles (she’s laid down over 13,000 tracks). “No, I haven’t sung enough. I haven’t done classical, I want to sing ragas. I’d like to have sung in more languages. And in English. When I listen to English music, it’s nothing in front of our songs. Nobody does the vocalisations that we do in Indian music. So I’m sad that I never did enough of that. But I think it’s because I never learned the English accent properly. I’ve sung and it’s been popular, but now I don’t have the time anymore.”
Asha Bhosle’s recipe for youth
At 83 — she turns 84 on September 8 — Asha Bhosle is a dynamo of energy. Between press interviews and tasting what the winners of the Flavours of Ramadan show have cooked up, she’s put in a full day’s work. “I don’t do anything,” she smiles. “I don’t do yoga, exercise, nothing. I don’t follow a special diet. I’ve never had to worry about blood sugar or cholesterol. I think that’s because I work a lot.”
But it’s all diet anyway, I say, asking what she eats. Her response is a prescription for moderation. “Eat two vegetables a day,” she says. “Eat dal and rice. Moong dal is the best, and sprouted moong is excellent. If you eat rice in the afternoon, eat two chapatis for dinner.” She keeps red meat and chicken to a maximum of two or three times a week, but likes her seafood. “The more fish you eat, the better. Prawns not so much. Eat pomfret or kingfish. It’s not fattening, it doesn’t cause heartburn, and it’s not heavy.”
She doesn’t eat a lot of cake or sweets, but confesses to three cups of chai each day. No fruit either because it’s bad for her throat and her voice. “Nothing sour at all. Unless I go to Goa, then I eat everything.”
Asha Bhosle’s Chingri Chaap
These crumb-fried prawns were a favourite of Asha’s husband, the composer and prince of Tripura, RD Burman
Prep time: 30 minutes — Serves: 1
3 large white shrimp
3 tsp concentrated lemon juice
2 fresh eggs
60g red onion
10g chopped coriander, to garnish
10g red chilli powder
Oil, for frying
1. Peel and devein the prawns. Clean them in cold water and butterfly or slice each as far as you can through the middle without cutting it in half. Flatten the side of a knife and set aside.
2. Make a paste of the garlic, onion, ginger, lemon juice, red chili powder and chopped coriander. Adjust the seasoning. Add the prawns and marinate in the fridge for 2-3 hours.
3. When ready to serve, beat the eggs and dip each prawn into the mixture, then dip in the breadcrumbs and deep fry until golden brown.